Yves Saint Laurent is lovely to look at, but what the film makes up for in style, it unfortunately lacks in real substance.
It’s a mere six years since Yves Saint Laurent’s death from cancer and this film is the first of two concerning the iconic designer to be released in 2014. This offering, directed by Jalil Lespert, is a considered portrait of Saint Laurent and his relationships. In the latter half of the year Bertrand Bonello’s film will be released.
Pierre Niney, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Yves Saint Laurent, plays the lead role. At the beginning of the story the young genius doesn’t drink and draws constantly. Fashion’s young protégé he takes the helm of Dior aged just 21. But when conscripted to the Algerian war, he lasts mere days before suffering a mental breakdown and loses his position at Dior.
Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Galienne) is the designer’s lover and business partner, who engineers the creation of the house of Yves Saint Laurent. Much of the film is focused on retelling and probably dramatising their lives together – but this a biopic rather than a biography and it does look beautiful.
In terms of fashion nostalgia there’s plenty of it. We meet Monsieur Dior before his death; there’s a young Karl Lagerfeld (Nikolai Kinski) in the Studio 54 era and Saint Laurent’s striking muses Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon) and Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin) feature. There’s the creation of ‘le smoking’, possibly the house’s most iconic design. Saint Laurent’s famous nude portrait is even recreated.
The clothes are beautiful. Costume designer Madeline Fontaine got her hands on mostly original pieces for the film, through the YSL Foundation, including ‘le smoking’ and the Mondrian dresses and pieces from Saint Laurent’s tenure at Dior. The catwalk scenes serve to anchor important moments in the house of Yves Saint Laurent, though we’re not privy to less successful shows.
As the film progresses the burdened artist spirals into drink, drugs, sex. By all accounts it’s accurate, but it’s a well worn path of self-destruction common in themes of the suffering artist, in this case it gets a little dull.
When Saint Laurent becomes ill, Bergé says “you entered illness as some people enter religion”, and the ill Yves bears little resemblance to the former jet setter. The film ends in 1976 with the designer’s triumphant Russian Collection: a rich and ornate display of excess. Though Yves Saint Laurent lived until 2008 the film doesn’t look at how those thirty plus years played out, certainly some of his collections were dismissed.
The weakness of the film is that in its attempt to do so much it’s thin of substance and laden with beautiful, weak characters who hang-on to the script. We never even really know Yves – early on he says to Bergé “You know, I’m not that nice”, while later he points to his kindness as his best quality – but maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the man himself was a contradiction of sorts, a muddle of idiosyncrasy. It’s clear he loved beauty to a fault.
Two sorts should go to see this film: Firstly, those film buffs who have to see everything; secondly, fashion lovers who go for the style alone. I fall into the second category and certainly enjoyed the spectacle, but couldn’t help but feel that a little something was missing.
Yves Saint Laurent is on release since 21st March. At selected cinemas only.
Lead image © Thibault Grabherr et Anouchka de Williencourt / SND via Allociné